The bullpen was a huge strength for the Pirates during the 2015 season. They finished second in the NL in fWAR, first in ERA, fourth in xFIP, and first in WPA, while having the most shutdowns and the second fewest meltdowns.
During the off-season last year, it looked like they might start to dismantle that bullpen by trading Mark Melancon. That didn’t happen, and instead the Pirates entered the 2016 season with more money committed to their bullpen than ever before, and the look of another strong group. Not only did they bring Melancon back for close to $10 M, but they also brought in Neftali Feliz for just under $4 M, and Juan Nicasio for $3 M. They joined Tony Watson, who was making $3.45 M, and Jared Hughes, making $2.175 M.
For a team projected to spend around $100 M, using over 20% of those funds on the bullpen was a bit bold, and went against the tradition of the Pirates to go with cheaper options in the pen.
That investment didn’t work out in 2016. The Pirates finished 12th in the NL in fWAR, fifth in ERA, eighth in xFIP, eighth in WPA, seventh in shutdowns, and eighth in meltdowns. They were a middle of the pack group at best, which is not the result you want to see from 20% of your payroll.
There are many reasons for the bullpen struggles this year. The poor off-season approach with the starting pitching led to some of the initial problems. Nicasio was signed to be a strength for the bullpen, but was used in the rotation at the start of the year. He had a 5.05 ERA and a 4.27 xFIP in 62.1 innings as a starter, compared to a 3.88 ERA and a 3.03 xFIP in 55.2 innings as a reliever. Had he started the year in the bullpen as planned, things might have been better.
But Nicasio alone wouldn’t have helped. One of the biggest issues for the Pirates in the bullpen this year was that Tony Watson did not show up with the same stuff he had in previous years. Watson was one of the best relievers in the game from 2013-15. In that span, he ranked 16th in fWAR, 10th in ERA, 54th in xFIP, 2nd in WPA, and 3rd in shutdowns among 169 qualified relievers.
This year he finished 115th in fWAR, 54th in ERA, 98th in xFIP, 65th in WPA, 26th in shutdowns, and 66th in fewest meltdowns among 135 qualified relievers. At best, he was middle of the pack, and in that way, he was a microcosm of the Pirates’ bullpen. Coming into the year, he looked great, with some high expectations. By the end of the year, he struggled enough that his results had him as a replacement level reliever.
It wasn’t just Watson’s fault for the bullpen struggling. Jared Hughes struggled after putting up some decent numbers in 2015. Arquimedes Caminero did the same. Neftali Feliz started strong, but faded down the stretch. Even Mark Melancon didn’t have his best results. The actual ERA was good, but the advanced metrics were down from previous years.
Things got so bad that A.J. Schugel ended up being one of the more reliable relievers in the bullpen by the middle of the season. That’s not a knock on Schugel, as his season was a good one before being shut down with an injury. But if I told you before the season that A.J. Schugel would be the third most valuable reliever, or even that Wade LeBlanc would rank 4th in fWAR, you would have thought the bullpen would be a disaster. And that would have been correct.
The Pirates tried to counter this by bringing in new blood in the second half. They added Antonio Bastardo at the deadline in a swap for Jon Niese. Bastardo only posted replacement level numbers, but that was higher than guys like Caminero, Hughes, Watson, and Feliz. They traded Caminero for two lottery tickets in the lower levels. They brought in a series of September relief options like Phil Coke and Zach Phillies, with most of them being replacement level. Wade LeBlanc ended up the best of the bunch, putting up some good numbers as a reliever in just 12 innings.
The biggest addition in the second half was the addition of Felipe Rivero. However, this came with the subtraction of Mark Melancon. By that point, the season didn’t matter, and while the Pirates were still technically in the race at the time of the trade, their inability to be more than a .500 team for most of the season suggested that if they made the playoffs, they would have been eliminated by now. They traded Melancon, rather than watching him walk as a free agent, and got the hard throwing lefty Rivero for the next five years.
Overall, the bullpen struggles helped lead to a down year where the entire pitching staff struggled, and now lead to some questions about how the bullpen will look next year.
This time last year, the bullpen looked like it would have been a strength if the Pirates kept Melancon and most of the guys from the 2015 roster. That wasn’t the case, mostly due to the other guys from the 2015 roster, and not as much with Melancon. And now we’re looking at a bullpen that has question marks next year, with no Melancon, putting us in the exact opposite situation as last year.
It’s important to note that bullpens can be unpredictable, as relievers are very volatile. That led to a situation where a strong looking bullpen led to weak results in 2016. It could also lead to a situation where a weak looking bullpen might lead to strong results in 2017.
I don’t think the Pirates should bank on this happening though. They should definitely take this approach with Watson. He had a bad year in 2016, but his success before that shows that he’s a guy you want to stick with. I think that getting him back on track requires fixing something that was wrong with his approach this year, and hopefully that can be done before next season.
If the classic version of Watson is back, then the bullpen already looks strong from the start. You have Watson as the closer, followed by a hard throwing right-hander in Nicasio and a hard throwing left-hander in Rivero. Add in middle relief options like Schugel, Bastardo, LeBlanc, and some of the lower ranked starting pitching prospects like Steven Brault and Trevor Williams, and you’ve got the makings of a good bullpen.
I don’t think the Pirates are set though. They could use another late inning guy to help strengthen the back of the bullpen. If all works out well, then you’ve got the 7th-9th innings locked down with Watson, Nicasio, Rivero, and the new guy. If something doesn’t work along the way, you have a guy who can step up as extra depth if one of the other relievers struggles or gets injured.
I’m not about to get into the possible options for the Pirates, since there are numerous bullpen options every year via trade or free agency. I’ll just say that they need to add a guy to help anchor down the late innings and improve the depth. It also wouldn’t hurt to add a lot of depth. While Schugel, Bastardo, and LeBlanc are good options for the 5th-7th spots in the bullpen, I don’t think you just settle with those guys (and I’m not entirely convinced that Bastardo and LeBlanc start the year with the Pirates).
In the past, following years with stronger bullpens, I’ve talked with Neal Huntington about the negotiations with free agent relievers, and how the lack of options in Pittsburgh was a problem at times in attracting free agents looking for opportunities. That shouldn’t be an issue this year, and the Pirates should be in a position to add a few relievers, as they definitely have opportunities.
The long-term isn’t really worth sorting out for the bullpen, as relievers can come from so many places. This time last year, I wasn’t even including Nicasio and Rivero in the future projections. So we have no clue who will be in the mix as relievers in 2018, let alone the years beyond 2018.
I will point to the starting pitching depth the Pirates have in the minors. They’ve got a lot of guys who project as middle or back of the rotation options. Jameson Taillon and Chad Kuhl have established themselves as starters, and Tyler Glasnow is still on the starting path, but Steven Brault and Trevor Williams might find themselves as relievers in the long-term. I think Nick Kingham has a higher upside than those two, but he could initially make it as a reliever, depending on the circumstances. Then there’s guys like Tyler Eppler, Brandon Waddell, and Clay Holmes, who might also be pushed to the bullpen due to depth.
The Pirates won’t get all of their future relievers from the farm system, but we’re now entering a time when they have so many upper level starting pitching prospects that it only makes sense to start transitioning some of them to the bullpen. That could start to happen in the minors in 2017. But before that happens, they need to focus on strengthening the 2017 bullpen this off-season.